A few people – mostly students and community organizers – began to assembly in front of a timeworn circus tent. As the actors warmed up for the upcoming show, other members of the crew revealed some tension.
“We’re going to have huge problems if it starts to rain during tonight’s performance”, disclosed Romualdo Lisboa, founder and director of Teatro Popular de Ilheus (TPI), a 22-year-old ensemble. The troupe has been occupying that tent for four years, after a long struggle to get hold of a theatrical venue in the city. “Taking shelter here was a great achievement for us – but we still have to deal with these leaks.”
Precariousness is an old companion of TPI. Since its birth in 1995, the company confronted all the hardships inherent to a cultural endeavor in a country with scarce funds for the arts. Box office income in Ilheus was never enough to finance the basic costs of a theater ensemble – something that also applies to rich Brazilian cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. “Our artistic choices have driven us towards social and political stances. We realized that we had to organize and fight for our existence”, recalled Lisboa, sitting on a backstage area packed with wooden scenery parts and props from previous works.
The show is about to begin. It’s a staging of Señora Carrar’s Rifles, a play written by the German author Bertolt Brecht in 1937 about a Spanish mother who doesn’t want her sons to engage in the war against the troops of Fascist general Francisco Franco. The awakening of her critical consciousness takes place after the murder of one of her sons. “This play is about resistance. It’s about showing that we’re still here and we’re ready to fight for our lives,” said Lisboa.
These words have multiple significances. Since 2015, Brazil entered into an economic and political crisis that culminated in the impeachment of then president Dilma Rousseff. Vice President Michel Temer took office promising that he would stabilize the country, but the unemployment rate continued to grow (in the end of April, there were 14.2 million people without jobs) and now he himself is the focus of a corruption scandal.
For artists all over the country, it’s been catastrophic. In his first days as the new leader, Temer announced the suppression of the Ministry of Culture and its merging with the Ministry of Education. After many demonstrations organized by cultural workers, he revoked his decision. But the already insufficient resources of the area were severely reduced, causing the suspension of the activities of several non-commercial artistic groups. The first two ministers resigned – and the interim head of the ministry already announced that he wants to quit.
The audience begins to enter the arena, attentively examining the setting: the entire scenery was built with wooden crates. “We set up the play with a crowdfunding campaign. We didn’t have any money,” explained producer Elson Rosario, going out to get some popcorn with a street vendor. Artists from distinct parts of the country recorded videos to support the campaign. The funds were used to finance the production and to pay for special tickets for public school students.
The play is an honest enactment of Brecht’s work, teeming with music and films projected on wooden frames. There is only one important addition: the video testimony of a mother who couldn’t bury her murdered daughter. “We work in close connection with a community organization located in a poor, violent neighborhood in Ilheus. They told us about several killings that happened there this year, usually perpetrated by rival gang members or policemen. Most victims are very young,” said Lisboa.
The image of the woman was distorted, so her daughter’s murderers are not able to recognize her. Her voice is filled with sorrow, but it’s firm.
“I was told my daughter was missing and that she was probably dead. I went to a police station to file a claim, but the deputy told me nothing could be done because the witnesses were all afraid to talk.” She cannot sleep at night sometimes, thinking about what happened. “My neighbor lost one of her sons a week after my daughter was killed. Five months later, her other son was murdered. I know her pain is worse than mine because she lost two of her sons. But at least she could see their bodies. I could not.” Many mothers had to bury their sons and daughters in her district, she adds.
The show is over. The audience applauds. Someone shouts, “Out with Temer!” and everybody repeats the slogan. Lisboa and other members of TPI look pleased.
But they have new shows to produce and new battles to fight, with or without Temer.